Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

The satire of Seneca on the Apotheosis of Claudius commonly called the Apocolocyntosis; online

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his at que talibus hand pcrmotiLS princeps . . . statim
contra disseruit (Tac. xi. 24) — was, in fact, both
illiberal and reactionary. The abuse hinted at
in Claudius's defence by Diespiter {Lud. c. 9), who
vendere civitattilas solebat, was incidental and occa-
sional. Claudius in his censorship, besides, made
particular decrees against the usurpation of Roman
rights by ^trsons peregrinae conditionis (Suet. 25),
and punished as well ambitious liber tini who pre-
tended to a station that did not belong to them.

The unflattering remarks in the Ltcdiis on the
subject of the caicsidici and Claudius's services to
that notorious class, doubtless refer particularly to
his limited authorization of the receiving of fees
by advocates (Tac. xi. 7). This proposal was bit-
terly opposed by the conservatives. The emperor


nevertheless, thinking that the arguments in its
favor had the side of reason, though less preten-
tious than the aristocratic objections, assented to
the frank giving of ho7toraria not exceeding ten
thousand sesterces. We cannot but think he was
right. The satirist then was so far wrong, just as
was Aristophanes in holding Socrates up to ridi-
cule as a sophist. Claudius, though often inef-
fective, was by temperament a reformer. This
showed itself in two directions, that of right
reason and common sense making accommoda-
tions to the new conditions in the state, and that
of a formal return to the usages of the fathers ; in
both ways, however, he was at variance with the
immediate conservatism of his day. And though
he is notorious for his antiquarian revival of old
customs, it is surprising how many precedents he
broke, as we have found the historians continually
pointing out, novo more. Compare Dio, Ix. 21, and
id. 23, %va y€ /jlt) KaivoTo/jbelv n ho^rj, showing how he
felt himself liable to be misunderstood in this way.
It would of course be undiscriminating to expect
really fair treatment in a burlesque like the Apo-
colocyntosis. Only as a caricature is it a study, and
while it does not give the subject his due, it at least
follows his essential Hues and treats him consist-
ently from its own standpoint. At the same time
it rather delicately avoids matters likely to be dan-
gerous. If less than we should expect is made of
the extent to which Claudius was the cat's paw


of those about him, questions are avoided in the
region of Agrippina's responsibility. She and her
circle had too recently profited by precisely that one
of Claudius's defects. It is not without interest after
reading the later historical accounts, to look in the
Apocolocyfitosis for what is left out. For instance,
the satire leaves us with simply the official story
of the manner and time of Claudius's death, in
spite of the tempting "copy" that might have
been made of the true one. There is no hint of
the boleti which were to become proverbial.^ But
there is a real finesse in the way the satirist's
account is related to his inner knowledge of the
actual facts in the case. After dating the event,
both poetically and prosaically, he states : Clauditis
afiimam agere coepit, nee invejiire exitinn poterat.
Then Mercury and the Fates have a discussion
while the matter is pending. And while, as we
know, Agrippina is pretending that Claudius is
still alive, calling in comedians to entertain him
and cleverly shutting the pubHc out from any
knowledge of the situation till all is ready for her
son's assumption of power, the Fates and Apollo
are kept sedulously spinning out Nero's destiny, in
heaven. When everything is done, Claudius a^iimam
ebidliit et ex eo desiit vivere videri; i,e, he became
known to be dead. This tells nothing, save to those
who knew it all before, and the joke does double

^ Cf. Mart. Epig. i. 20, 4; Juv. Sat, v. 147; Suet. Nero, ^y, etc.


Apart from the principal subject of the satire
there are hints of other details in the life of the
time. Thus we have an instructive intimation of
the social consequences that befell the obliging
senator who for Caligula's benefit had testified
to Drusilla's ascent to the skies. The unsavory
habits of Narcissus appear to be given as a mat-
ter of court gossip, libellous or perhaps not. The
picture of the imperial funeral procession is another,
with which we have not many for comparison.

One matter which seems little in harmony with
the rest of the satire is the poem on Nero's des-
tiny (c. 4). It is of course a bald intrusion for con-
temporary effect. As to its content, it must be
put alongside Seneca's books De Clementia, Nero
is described, by a familiar method of preceptorial
tact, as an example of what he ought to be. These
verses in the Apocolocyntosis are not to be taken
too seriously, but they do appear to represent
Seneca's habitual attitude toward his imperial pupil
in the early part of his reign. Besides, the con-
temptuous brevity with which Claudius is dis-
missed in the beginning {turpi . . . fiiso, etc.)
points the desired contrast between the meanness
of Claudius's character and the anticipated glories
of an artist on the throne. We find indeed in
these two princes an entertaining juxtaposition of
the artist and the pedant, each, as the sequel
showed, occasionally at his worst.

If the Apocolocyntosis was written with any other


motive than to free the author*s mind, its purpose
was doubtless political. Two generations after this
time, Pliny the Younger could frankly say even to
an emperor that Nero consecrated Claudius only ut
irrideret {Panegyr. xi). This, however, was more
epigrammatic than true of the actual days when the
palace revolution had just put Nero on the throne.
The reader of Tacitus easily infers that Agrippina
must have welcomed the timely appearance of a
pamphlet which would contribute to the discredit of
Claudius's reign, and cleverly intimate better times
at hand. The real manner of Claudius's death must
soon have become known, and Agrippina and Nero
secured themselves in power so easily, no doubt,
because people thought it hardly worth while to
care what had happened to the dead man. Nero
and his mother, nevertheless, had prudential rea-
sons enough for themselves officially consigning
Claudius to heaven, as well as reasons both practi-
cal and aesthetic for enjoying sub rosa such an un-
official, irresponsible disposal of him, by some one
else, as we have in the Apocolocyntosis. Nero him-
self, in all probability at a later date,^ joked at
Claudius's expense, and even with reference to the
poisoned mushrooms by which he died. But while
Britannicus was still a possibility, and Nero still
perhaps felt unsafe over the murder of his prede-

^ Heinrich's surprising theory was that the Luiius itself was
Nero's idea, Seneca serving only to put it into its present form. See
Bahr, Gesch. d. rom. Lit.y 3d ed., vol. ii. p. 461.


cesser, the useful ridicule of Claudius had to be
supplied by some one else, and may well have been
doubly welcome. It is therefore quite possible that
the satire was written to meet a felt want of this

Yet it would not require a great shifting of the
emphasis to tempt us to take the Apocolocyiitosis as
a tract against the absurdities of the estabHshed
religion, especially, of course, the phase of it in-
volved in the imperial apotheoses. The situation
suggests one of Tertullian's ironies : Nisi homini
deus placiierit, deus 7ion erit ; homo iam deo propitiiis
esse debebit {Apologet., c. 5). St. Augustine has a
chapter (^De Civitate Dei, vi. 10), de libertate Sene-
cae, qui , , , in eo libro quern contra sup erst itiones
condidit, multo copiosius atque vehementius repre-
hendit ipse civilem istam et urbanam theologian
quam Varro theatricam atque fabulosam. Since
the book contra superstitiones is lost, the only
value of this evidence is in showing the direction
of one of Seneca's interests.

Dissatisfaction with religious matters in the
Roman State seems to have taken two main direc-
tions : one opposed to the multipHcation of divini-
ties which was the fashion of the time, and harking
conservatively back to the old days of the simpler
Italian religion (cf. Juvenal's Sat. xiii., and in the
Ludus, c. 9, olim magna res erat deum fieri) ; the
other involving the weak points in the whole pagan
pantheon. For our Ltidus could be postulated


something of both points of view. It is, moreover,
the first appearance in extant Roman literature of
just such an irreverent dramatic treatment of the
gods, as Aristophanes, for instance, had made more
familiar to the Greeks. There was scepticism
already indeed in Ennius, Lucilius, and Varro;
and Lucretius (cf. De R, N. v. 1161-1240), not to
mention Cicero, had in a serious scientific way-
reviewed the popular mythology with destructive
intent, but such a method was nothing in effec-
tiveness compared to tliis. Few things could be
more subversive of reverence for the orthodox
gods than the picture of Jupiter getting angry and
slangily reproaching his fellow-divinities in coun-
cil, or than the simplicity of Hercules, as an
examiner of applicants, less shrewd than St. Peter,
first getting himself taken in by an impostor and
then electioneering in his behalf with such tips
as manus maniim lavat. Nowadays, as Verdaro
remarks in his introduction (p. 25), this sort of
thing is relatively familiar, ma^ pel tempo di
Seiieea, era tina grande inttiizione poetica. It was
at least more of a literary novelty than at present ;
and this should have made it count the more in its
irreligious aspect.

But we must remember that the Romans were
temperamentally inclined to treat their gods in
a rather matter-of-fact fashion. The mimes and
Atellanae are said to have been often irreverent;
and so early a writer as Valerius Antias, dealing


with a still earlier tradition, describes the pious
Numa as dickering with Jove like a veritable shy-
ster. This element in the Ludus then would have
been less striking than might be supposed.

As for the particular matter of deifying an
emperor, the modern conception of deity is so
immensely different from that which prevailed in
the time of the early Caesars, that the attitude
which to us seems inevitable on the subject is by
no means to be assumed of even intelligent con-
temporaries of such an event. Professor Boissier,
in his interesting and important chapter on U Apo-
th^ose Imperiale {La Religion Romaine^ i. ch. 2),
explains at length the sources of that public
state of mind to which the passing of the barrier
between humanity and divinity was not at all
essentially absurd. The political aspects of the
cult of the Caesars give it a still appreciable dig-
nity. Even Seneca would hardly have dreamed of
actually undermining the institution as such. His
satire was quite personal; and while Boissier al-
ludes to its success as facheux potcr V apoMose
impMale, it would require a ponderous sort of
criticism to see in the Apocolocyiitosis any such
serious purpose as that of theological enlighten-
ment. We need not, on the whole, suspect the
author of any other intent than that of amusing
himself and a few others, of freeing his mind, in
fact, at the arrival of the moment when he saw, as
Hercules didyferrum stmm i^t igne esse.



The historical interest of the Apocolocyntosis,
therefore, lies not only in what it does for its
subject, Claudius, but also in what it shows of
the character and intention of its author. Seneca
was one of the most significant as well as visibly
important men of his time ; and the nature of most
of his writings is such, to say the least, that this
satire easily appears a surprising thing to have
come from his pen. There are, in fact, two related
problems which have to be dealt with in this con-
nection : how to account for the Ludus among
the works of the philosopher, and how to account
for the discrepancy of the title ApocolocyntosiSy
under which Dio Cassius (Ix. 35) presumably
alludes to it.

If the piece could be proved to be not Seneca's,
it would simply be one more in the group of spu-
rious works which in the Middle Ages came to be
attached to his name. It is one of the accessories
of fame to get the credit of things, both good and
bad, which one did not do. Seneca seems often
to have been so favored in mediaeval times, e.g.
in the case of the Senteiitiae of Publilius Syrus,
which so long went under his name. This fact, of
course, proves nothing as to the ApocolocyntosiSy but
its tendency is to weaken faith.

If, on the other hand, we can accept it as his, it
presents but one more feature in the already abun-


dantly paradoxical aspect of his life. The common-
places of literary estimate of the Apocolocyntosisy
such as are provided in the histories of Roman
literature, are quite generally colored by the
critics* judgments upon Seneca for writing such
a piece. CruttwelP says he "revenged himself
{i,e, for his exile) after Claudius's death by this
sorry would-be satire,'* etc. Schmitz^ calls it a
** bitter and unworthy satire on the deceased em-
peror Claudius." Farrar, in a note appended to
his essay on Seneca,^ says, "We may at least
hope " that the Apocolocyntosis is not by the same
hand that wrote the adulatory Consolatio ad Poly-
Hum. Friedlander, in an historical review,^ refers
to it as ein Pasqidll . . . mehr boshaft als witzig,
Mackail, likewise, in his History of Latin Litera-
ture^ describes it as a " silly and spiteful attack on
the memory of the emperor Claudius," going on to
imply that it is rather dull ; and even dictionaries
go out of their way to call it "an insipid lampoon."
On the other hand, E. Havet^ has this to say:
SMque est, aprh Ciceron et avec P^trone, V^crivain
romain qui a eu le plus de ce que nous appelons de
V esprit ; et il n'en a mis nulle part autant que dans
ce curieux pamphlet, d'un ton si piquant et si mo-
derne. Boissier"^ calls it une des satires les plus

1 Hist, of Rom. Lit., p. 377. * Hist. Zeitschr., N. F. 49.

2 Hist, of Latin Lit., p. 142. ^ p. 1 74.

8 Seekers after God, p. 1 19. ^ j^^^^ Poi ^^ Lit.,1%']^.

■^ La R'elig. Rom., Vol. I. p. 195. In describing the piece, Pro-
fessor Boissier alludes by mistake to Mercury for Hercules.


vives et les phis gaies qtie Vantiqidti nous ait
laisshs ; and Klebs^ asserts, Es ist erne ebenso
witzige wie giftige Schmdhschrift.

These typical estimates I quote, not for their util-
ity in forming a new one, but to illustrate how the
ethical question is, after all, largely one of tempera-
ment and point of view. To condemn a work of
art on aesthetic grounds for moral reasons is a de-
vice not unknown, either in the hope of doing good
or from some temperamental involvement of the
moral and aesthetic senses. There is probably no
need of determining whether it is compromising to
like the Apocolocyntosis or obtuse not to do so. The
importance of such considerations to the question
of Seneca's authorship is slight. The only preju-
dice that can fairly be acknowledged in the matter
is an indisposition to interfere with whatever inter-
est the satire possesses. Even this, perhaps, is by
way of begging the question.

The tradition of Seneca's authorship of the
existing Ludiis has been variously attacked ; in re-
cent years by Stahr (in the appendix to his Agrip-
pina\ and by Riese and Lindemann, while Birt,
following a somewhat different line, refuses to
identify the piece we have with the one which
Dio Cassius said that Seneca wrote. The prin-
cipal objections to the common tradition, while
unequally shared and emphasized by the different
critics, may be summarized as follows :

1 Hist. Zeitschr., N. F. 25.


(i) The meanness of the attack on Claudius
after he was dead, as well as the pettiness of some
of its details, is unworthy of Seneca the man and
the philosopher.^

(2) The contrast between this attack and the
adulations of the same emperor in the Consolatio
ad Polybium is too particularly glaring for us to
accept this as from the same hand that wrote the

(3) It would have been politically most inept
for one in Seneca's position ^ to make fun of an
imperial consecratio, a reflection upon the whole
public administration.

(4) There are specific incompatibilities between
the Ludus and Seneca's known views and per-
sonal history ; e.g. narrow-minded ridicule of the
extension of Roman citizenship in contrast with
his progressive ideas on the subject; the absurdity
for Seneca, the Corduban, to taunt Claudius with
his provincial birth ; the inconsistency of the Stoic
teaching with regard to physical infirmities and
the mockery of Claudius's bodily defects. Inaccu-
racies of statement, too, have been urged in this
connection, as that which describes the popular
rejoicing at Claudius's death, and the false account
of the manner and hour of the death itself.

(5) The literary style is in many respects quite
different from that known as Seneca's.

1 See especially Riese.

2 Stahr, pp. 335 and 337.


(6) The silence of all Latin authors as to the
existence of such a work leaves but a weak tradi-
tion in its favor.i

(7) The alleged reference to it in Dio Cassius
is of applicability more than doubtful.

The tradition that Seneca wrote the satire will
doubtless never be positively proved correct. It
is necessary, therefore, to take up each of the
objections to this view and see if it is impossible
or even finally improbable.

The first of them suggests a wide and entertain-
ing field for psychological discussion. The satire
in question was not an heroic thing for Seneca, or
anybody else, to write ; indeed, it was far from nice
of him. But at least it does not compromise his
intelligence, however it may affect our view of his
character. And we are under no obligations to
uphold, with Saint Jerome, Seneca's claims to
sainthood. Seneca himself said, casually ,2 of his
philosophy, iitiniqiiam mores, qtcos extuliy refero,
Dio's brilliant, though it is to be hoped exag-
gerated, enumeration of Seneca's moral inconsist-
encies is well known : . . . koX iv aX\oL<; irdvTa
TCi ivavTLcoTara oh i<\>Lkoa6<^eL ttolcov rjXey^^^Or}.
Koi yap Tvpavviho^ KaTTjjopcbv^ TVpavvohthdaKoKo^
iyivero' koi rcav avvovrcov roh Swdarat^ Kara-
Tpexcov, ovK cKJ^iararo tov iraXaTtov? Disquiet-
ing as the Ludus may be to the delicately moral

^ Stahr, p. 338. Ruhkopf praef, Vol. IV. p. xxxi. Fickert,
Vol. III. p. 781. 2 £p^ 7^ I, 8 Dio, ixi. 10.



regard, yet on the assumption that it was written
by Seneca there is not the sHghtest difficulty in
multiplying explanations for the phenomenon.

We have other evidence that Seneca, after his
exile, cherished a grudge against Claudius. When
Agrippina secured his recall from Corsica and got
him the praetorship, it was in order that her
ambition for the young Domitius might profit by
his counsels, quia Seneca fidus in Agrippinam
memoria beneficii et infensics Claudio dolore in-
iuriae credebatur (Tac. Ann, xii. 8). While Nero
was still under Seneca's influence, we know that
ministers of Claudius were dismissed and regula-
tions of Claudius abrogated.^ When Suillius, who
had been powerful and corrupt under the Claudian
regime, was accused, he charged that it was be-
cause Seneca was hostile to Claudius's friends, sub
quo, Suillius alleged, iustissimum exilium pertu-
lisset? This implies that Seneca's attitude toward
the emperor who had exiled him was sufficiently
understood by his contemporaries. How far the
laughter that greeted the funeral oration may have
irritated Seneca into added acrimony against the
man who had involuntarily furnished a com-
promising subject for his rhetorical skill, we can-
not say.

It is clear, besides, that apart from old scores
between them, the character of Claudius must have

1 Tac. Ann. xiii. 5 and 14.

2 Ibid. xiii. 42.


been especially distasteful to a man like Seneca.
The Stoic sense that the most important thing in
the world is to establish the personal freedom
which comes from self-control, making its possessor
relatively indifferent to the loss of political liberty,
would leave nothing but contempt for a character
like Claudius, who was so far from master of him-
self. At first sight, Claudius's literary interests
might seem to have commended him to the literary
philosopher. But there is probably no one who
so thoroughly loathes pedantry as the enlightened
scholar. In point of mere erudition we need not
try to compare Claudius and Seneca. Claudius
was a man of genuinely scholarly tastes, hampered
though these were by low-lived indulgences. But
his mind was no alembic to transmute his erudition
into something worthy of a scholar's respect. The
energy required to make a scholar and that to make
a successful man of affairs, not so different after
all, which were united in Seneca, were unitedly
absent from the make-up of Claudius. In Seneca's
regard for Claudius, there was the inevitable con-
tempt of the competent for the incompetent in
high place. Diderot remarks. Si f avals tm re-
proche a f aire a S^n^qice ce 7ie serait pas d' avoir
^crit rApoIoqtmitose \_sic], ou la metamorphose de
Claude en citroiiille ; mais d'en avoir compost
Voraison ftmkbre.

It is a somewhat crude assumption that Seneca's
philosophy, elevated as it seems, must have checked


him from writing a piece like the Ludus, We
remind ourselves from Tacitus ^ that he had a tem-
perament amoenuni et temporis eitis auribiis adcom-
modatum, Quintilian, though speaking apparently-
only of his oratorical style,^ characterized him as
having more ability than judgment. His philoso-
phy was really not so far from opportunism, after
all. There is no occasion for charges of hypocrisy,
disclosed by an indiscreet bit of satire; though
there is temptation in the fancy that when the
philosopher dons the motley he finds that his
jester's garments reveal more of his natural shape
than did his long and enveloping philosopher's
cloak. Boissier, however, studying Seneca with a
sympathetic acuteness, says of him : Ses ouvrages
en rejlechissent toutes les emotions ; au fond de ses
penshs les plus gMrales^ il est facile de voir
V influence des ^venements qii'il a traverses ; son
stoicismcy qui semble d'abord si rigoureux^ ne fait
que mettre en priceptes les n^cessites du moment oic
il ecrivait?

There is even a curious aptness in the fact that
the one satire, the one great literary joke, of
Seneca should be a Ludus de morte^ a monu-
mentally ridiculous death, when we recall that
one great burden of Seneca's serious philosophy
was dignity in face of the final necessity of man-
kind. Garat, writing under the shadow of the

^ Ann. xiii. 3. ^ Jnst. x. i,fin»

* V Opposition soiis les Cesars, p. 208.


guillotine in the Reign of Terror, may have mis-
judged his author as well as his own time, but he
said : // ne nous restait plus alors a tons qu'une
seule chose a apprendre : a mourir. Cest la presque
toute la p kilo sop hie de Shihque. If for the Ludus
were to be supposed a haec fabula docet, it would
be the absurdity of imagining an heroic death to
crown a ridiculous life.

Considerations like some of these must be laid
over against the offence which the publication of
a lampoon against a dead man gives to the modern
sense of propriety. Nil nisi bomint de mortuis
can obviously not be claimed as a modern inven-
tion, but it is an idea that has perhaps gained
increase of sanction with the lapse of time. The
effect, too, of the difference in freedom upon our
point of view in such matters is inevitably very
great. In Seneca's time, it was commonly out of
the question to say what one thought of an emperor,
unless indeed hypot helically ^ until after his death.

Practically this is the way in which we must dis-
pose of the incongruity between the Ludus and the
Consolatio ad Polybium, The latter is in great
part a not specially noteworthy piece of work.
Written as a consolation to the emperor's literary
secretary, Polybius, upon the death of his brother,
it contains the usual Stoic observations upon the
inevitableness of death, some sensible advice about
diverting himself from his grief by busying him-
self with his work, and a good deal of allusion to

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Online LibraryLucius Annaeus SenecaThe satire of Seneca on the Apotheosis of Claudius commonly called the Apocolocyntosis; → online text (page 2 of 18)